Seasonal Cycling: Christmas

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I have already written about cycling and the four seasons of the year but there’s one more that brings the year to an end and starts the next – that is Christmas & New Year.  Unless you are a commuter, racing cyclist or a very, very dedicated cyclist, most of us will have reduced mileage significantly by today, the winter solstice on December 21st.  If you are lucky enough to have daylight, perhaps even some sunshine, it will be noticeable that shadows are at their longest as the sun is at its lowest point in the sky for the year.  As a result cycling into the sun can be difficult or even dangerous as sight may be seriously impaired at such times.

Deciduous trees are now bare, the roads probably wet and muddy and wildlife will be hard to find and, as a result, the countryside takes on a quiet and still ambience.  Notwithstanding, if you’re lucky cold, crisp, dry and sunny days can occur over the Christmas season, making for an enjoyable cycling experience and a pleasant, even necessary relief from eating + drinking + TV!

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Cycling can be something of a relief or even necessity after this

Living at the higher northern latitudes it’s almost certainly going to be cold and warm clothing is essential, especially for the hands, feet and head, where heat loss is at its greatest.  Precipitation at this time of the year is also likely to be a factor and may be in the form of either rain or snow.  The problem after all the Christmas food and drink is you just need to get out on the road whatever the conditions and then perhaps one thing can often leads to another.  I’ve personally had a couple of bad falls from my bike in the snow and ice just after Christmas as a result of misplaced enthusiasm.  The main roads might be OK but if it’s snowy or icy the side-roads can still be treacherous and should only be attempted with suitable equipment, such as studded tyres.

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Conditions can be challenging at Christmas – if it looks like this best stay at home.

If you’re lucky Santa might bring you something for cycling on the 25th December.  If you’re very young it might be your first bike and you will want to try it out, if you’re older and it’s a carbon fibre racing bike the same probably applies.  All-in-all it’s a happy time to enjoy with friends and relations, whilst in the quiet moments considering cycling achievements of the previous twelve months and ideas for the year ahead that will soon begin.

On January 1st New Year’s resolutions might involve cycling and various related undertakings. But most of all, it holds the promise of 365-days or four annual seasons of cycling,  adventures and enjoyment on two wheels – or three for those that ride trikes!

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Happy Christmas & Best Wishes for the New Year

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Life on a bike-6: B17

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

An intriguing statistic of the 2012 London Olympics was that GB topped the medals table for “sitting” sports: rowing, canoeing, equestrian and cycling. Whilst the legs do most of the hard work in cycling, a comfortable seat is essential.  The saddle is the main point of contact with the bike and takes most of the rider’s weight.  A good functioning saddle is critical to all cycling, especially as the mileage increases; working well it’ll get little attention when being used but as related ailments develop during a ride or tour, the saddle will become the most important piece of equipment on the bike.

Apart from set-up such as height, fore & aft position and angle, qualities such as shape, size, material and cushioning will mainly determine comfort. Not all derrières are the same, apart from size, anatomical differences between men and women often require quite different saddle design for comfort.

Modern racing saddles are very narrow and mostly made of a combination of composites, modern fabrics and specialist alloys.  Day-to-day saddles may be made of similar materials but will probably be wider and more robust in nature. Underneath the saddle rails can also play an important role in both set-up and comfort.

My preferred saddle is a Brooks.  Made in England since 1866 and often considered the Rolls Royce of saddles, I inherited my first Brooks saddle from my father in the 1960’s and have continued to use them ever since.  Apart from their shape and craftsmanship, the Brooks saddle is almost always made of leather which is both comfortable and ‘breathes’.  Notoriously they require some wearing-in when new but after a few thousand miles they take the shape of the body and provide the ultimate in cycling comfort.

Most famous of the Brooks is the B17 model – I currently use a black, Champion Narrow version – the classical Brooks saddle favoured amongst many cycling aficionados the world over, especially when touring.

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Up The Downs

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The landscape and related scenery we see around us whilst cycling is primarily the result of geology and time, which amongst many features results in hills of various types.  The geology of the south east of England consists of a large, east-west trending anticline (regional arch-shaped fold), the centre of which has been eroded away to expose older sandstone and clay rock strata, collectively known as the Weald.  The remaining outer chalk edges of the anticline form the conspicuous range of hills called the North and South Downs.  These rocks dip gently outwards to the north and south respectively, which on their inward side marks the edge of the aforementioned Wealden basin in the form of a steep slope or scarp that also runs east to west (diagram below: From the Box Hill & Mole Valley Book of Geology by R C Selley, 2006).  Crossing this scarp by bike is hard work as it is the location of a number of climbs, many of which are infamous amongst cyclists.

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One such ride is Box Hill.  Situated on the North Downs near Dorking, the hill has increased in notoriety since featuring in the 2012 London Olympic Games men and women’s road races and still forms part of the annual Prudential London-Surrey 100 ride, as well as often the Tour of Britain bike race.  Ditchling Beacon is another similar hill. Located near Brighton on the South Downs, this climb was included in the Tour de France in 1994 and is part of the London to Brighton charity ride which takes place in June each year; I have participated in this ride a number of times and can testify to the hill’s difficulty, especially with 40,000 other cyclists in the way.

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Box Hill viewed from the Brockham Big Field, home of Dorking Rugby Club.

Less than 9-miles from my home, I have cycled up Box Hill and around the area many times and routinely view it from afar when cycling about the aforementioned Wealden area to the south.  The hill has long been an attraction for motorcyclists, who hang out at Ryka’s Café near the start of the climb by the A24.  However, since the 2012 Olympics it’s cyclists who have literally taken over the hill, presumably in order to emulate their cycle racing heroes.  At weekends the National Trust café at the top of the hill is completely full of cyclists, frequently posing with their carbon fibre +£3,000 road bikes and clad in Rapha lycra!  In truth the hill is well graded and is not a difficult climb but the aforementioned carbon fibre + Rapha brigade seems to see it as something of a challenge and rightly enjoy it nonetheless.

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The road gradually winds up the North Downs scarp to form the eponymous Zig Zag Road, which thus achieves a more benign gradient.  Following the Olympics the road surface is now very good but in order to restrain riders’ downhill speed, a number of rumble bumps have since been installed. Excluding the lower section from the A24, from top to bottom the Zig Zag ride is about 1.50 miles and ascends some 400 feet.

The climb starts just past Ryka’s café, where after turning right onto the Zig Zag Road, the road rises very gently along the bottom of a dry chalk valley before reaching the first hairpin bend.  Thereafter the road climbs more steeply as it traverses the chalk scarp of the North Downs before reaching a tight, right-handed hairpin bend, followed by another traverse this time to the south east and at a slightly lower incline than before.  On the upper slopes of this section distant views briefly emerge on the right, with Leith Hill to the west and the Weald in the distance to the south.  Towards the end of this stretch the view is obscured as the road enters woodland and meanders on for a short distance to the top and the National Trust café.  Continuing just beyond the café is located the main viewpoint, which provides the best wide-reaching views to the west, south and east as well as the River Mole Valley and town of Dorking immediately below.

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Panoramic view from the top of Box Hill

Thereafter, I have always found the ride along the top of Box Hill to Pebble Hill rather disappointing; it’s quite up and down terrain, a poor road surface, fairly busy and the view from the Downs is obscured by buildings and trees.  Notwithstanding, there are plenty of other good cycle routes that link up with this area, including the full Olympic circuit, which make Box Hill a worthy destination as part of a ride.  Just don’t expect Alpe d’Huez, this is not as some would have it – the Surrey Alps!

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Two Tunnels Ride

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In my experience the Europeans seem to excel at providing quality cycle paths and dedicated cycle routes.  Most noteworthy are those in the Low Countries, Germany and France; since discovering the Avenue Verte and other voies vertes in France, I just keep going back to enjoy what almost without exception are well planned, constructed and maintained paths and related facilities, resulting in safe and exceptionally enjoyable cycling.  Unfortunately the same cannot usually be said of the UK.

Despite the worthy efforts of Sustrans and a post 2012 London Olympics cycling resurgence, even where present such facilities are mostly poorly conceived, funded and maintained.  Some sections such as National Cycle Route-1 out of London along the Lee Valley, can only be described as a national disgrace – this being the number-1 UK cycle route out of central London.  But there are thankfully a few exceptions, one of which we rode shortly after its opening in June 2013 – the Two Tunnels Greenway located in and around the city of Bath.

Starting from the central Bath Spa railway station cycling clockwise, the route first heads east then south along the bank of the beautiful Kennet and Avon Canal.  The towpath consists of light gravel and in the dry is a good ride as far as the magnificent Dundas Aqueduct, which carries the canal over the River Avon and marks the junction with the now defunct Somerset Coal Canal.  It is a beautiful spot to stop, take a look at the aqueduct and have a drink, snack or light meal at the cafés and pubs located there.

Thereafter, the ride departs from the canal onto the attractive but hilly countryside roads around Monkton Combe, heading towards Midford before reaching the crux of the ride.  Turning north a new, beautifully surfaced path follows the former track-bed of the Somerset and Dorset railway.  Initially climbing and then shortly after crossing a hidden valley over a restored railway bridge, the path enters the first of the eponymous ‘two tunnels’.

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Built in 1874, Combe Down Tunnel is low and narrow for a railway but at just over 1-mile is the longest cycling tunnel in Britain and comfortably accommodates bikes heading in both directions on a well paved surface; nevertheless, I am intrigued to understand what type of trains once passed through this diminutive excavation.  With white LED lights about every 50 metres or so, the tunnel is well lit but there’s a surprise.  The tunnel is brick lined and along the side wall placed in recessed passing places at about 200 metre intervals, are blue lights which, as the cyclist passes by, set off a recorded passage of classical music – an audio-visual instillation called Passage by United Visual Artists.  Taken aback at first, the effect grew on me as I passed through.

After exiting for a brief period outside, the path enters the second, less noteworthy and shorter Devonshire Tunnel, which eventually emerges at its northern end into the southern outskirts of Bath.   Thereafter the cycle path weaves its way through the suburbs, before rapidly descending downhill into the valley of the River Avon.  At this point the ride joins the popular Bristol to Bath National Cycle Route 4 that runs along the north side of the River Avon, directly into the centre city centre and back to the start point.

This circular ride is just 13-miles long but packed with variety and points of interest, as well as iconic locations and some beautiful scenery.  Bath & Somerset Council have produced a useful guide and map to the ride, though its always good to carry an OS map, in this case 1:50,000 Landranger map number 172 or 1:25,000 OS Explorer map number 155. We camped just on the western outskirts of the city at the Newton Mill Caravan & Camping site, which was also very nice and quiet but convenient for the centre; once a tricky shortcut is navigated to the aforementioned Bristol to Bath cycle path, it’s just 15 minutes to the railway station by bike.  All-in-all the Two Tunnels Greenway (as it’s officially known) is an easy ride which is a lot of fun and can be highly recommended.

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Life on a bike-5: Proficiency

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I started cycle touring as a ‘young’ teenager just over 50-years ago.  By then I had been cycling for about 8-years or so and already discovered the feeling of freedom just going out for local rides.  However, inspired by my dad’s pre-WWII cycling stories I wanted to go further afield.  Such exploits were to become a life-long experience for me that I am still enjoying but, not surprisingly, before setting out my parents insisted I demonstrate my cycling aptitude and road knowledge first.  Even at that time road traffic was starting to pose more difficult and sometimes dangerous cycling conditions that I needed to be aware and careful of, today the situation is immeasurably worse.

Faced with this requirement and eager to start touring, I needed no encouragement to begin cycle training before eventually taking my Cycling Proficiency Test.  I passed first time and felt both proud and excited at the opportunities this could now open up for me; I still have and treasure the badge I was awarded for passing.  Today’s equivalent scheme is called Bikeablity and in my opinion should be made compulsory for all children and adults who want to ride a bike on public roads.  It’s a small price to pay to learn what I consider to be an essential life skill, which ultimately benefits the individual and society forever.

I shall always be grateful that my parents insisted I prepared for and took the Cycling Proficiency Test.  I was even more surprised that they were then as good as their word and allowed me to take-off on long-distance cycling trips around England, which had a positive influence not just on my life as a cyclist but on me as a person and my future life.

To be continued………………………………

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Seasonal Cycling: Autumn

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This is the last in a series that has so far covered Winter, Spring and Summer, documenting my thoughts and observations on the seasons and how they affect cycling.  On 22nd September we reached the Autumn Equinox, at which point the sun is again directly overhead of the Equator as it moves rapidly southwards away from us.  This means we are now inexorably heading into winter, not altogether a happy proposition for cyclists in the northern hemisphere.

Even if you haven’t got out of bed this year let alone been cycling, we have so far travelled 409 million miles as Earth continues its annual orbit around the Sun and that’s excluding the 4 million miles travelled as Earth spins around its axis here just outside London; this distance varies depending on latitude.  Notwithstanding, hopefully cycling over the preceding seasons has successfully achieved many enjoyable miles and peak fitness has now been reached.

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Faced with the impending prospect of winter, the fair weather riders will hang up their cycle clips until next spring.  But as Billy Connolly once put it “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing”, that goes for other equipment too.  For the diehard 52-week cyclist autumn may instead be time to put away the fast, shiny bike and transfer onto a winter bike, something probably less valuable, more robust with mudguards and perhaps thicker tyres; come January maybe even studded tyres.  Clothing is likely to be less lycra and more waterproofs and thermals that are needed, as well as gloves, trousers and jackets.

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Lengthening shadows, shorter days and lower temperatures soon become noticeable whist riding in autumn.  Notwithstanding, early autumn can benefit from the latent heat of summer which is still in the air and ground and, if lucky, cycling will remain comfortable for at least a few more weeks.  However, with sunrise and sunset already at 7am and 7pm, if you’re a cycling commuter it will soon be time to use bike lights on the journey to and from work.  Of course none of this is good news but there are compensations during this transitional season that brings the year to an end.

Autumn is perhaps the most striking season of the year as the bright colours of nature mark a sensational end to the year’s cycling.  Most conspicuously the leaves of deciduous trees slowly turn from green to spectacular yellows, oranges and reds, making for a once-a-year show of colour whilst riding by.  However, with large quantities of wet, rotting leaves lying on the ground road conditions can become slippery and  even dangerous so that great caution needs to be taken, especially on sharp corners and when braking; beware also as  the leaf paste created can smear onto wheel rims making braking itself less effective.

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Unfortunately there are other cycling hazards at this time of the year.  In autumn the ground and plants will frequently be covered by heavy dew in the early morning, again making roads slippery for cyclists.  More inconveniently cycle campers will have to pack a wet tent that will later need to be dried for storage over winter.  As autumn progresses gusting winds can bring down old or dead branches that can prove a real danger to cyclists if not alert.  At this time of the year bonfires and fog can also typically make an unwelcome appearance, making visibility a serious problem for all, especially cyclists that are sharing the road with faster moving vehicles – not a good mix!

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By now most crops will be have been harvested and the fields look bare.  Preparation for winter has begun and farm tractors often produce muddy roads that are dangerous for cyclists.  Hedge trimming is also underway, which can leave unwanted thorns on the road surface that can lead to punctures for the unwary or unlucky.  However, the orchards are now laden with ripe fruit ready for picking; for those with too much, boxes of apples may be left by the roadside for cyclists and others to take as they pass.

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The damp cool conditions of autumn are conducive to the growth of fungi that often adorns the roadside edge.  Some are conspicuously coloured bright red and brown colours and may be edible but others are poisonous and it is best to look but don’t touch. However, very soon nature’s food production will be finished for the year.

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Likewise major changes are apparent amongst wildlife.  Many of the summer’s birds are migratory and will soon be on their way back to warmer climates for the winter, if they haven’t gone already, thus changing the associated sights and sounds encountered whilst cycling though the countryside.  A more sober thought, as small mammals start to hibernate roadkill becomes less evident during a ride!  Larger farm animals may be moved indoors, though most will stoically have to remain outside and endure the cold wet days that lie ahead.  Autumn marks the rutting season for deer and is a lively time for the stags.

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Cycling in autumn is remembered for its cooler days, colourful sights, the dank odour of rotting vegetation, against a background of changing light and sounds.  All-in-all autumn can be a very beautiful and enjoyable time on a bike but inevitably the thought of winter ahead casts a long shadow over the experience.  Hopefully after months of cycling fitness is good, so it’s time to put in some decent rides before mileage starts to fall, Christmas fare takes its toll  and the annual cycling year starts all over again.

Ode To Autumn by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cell.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir, the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

 

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Life on a bike-4: Air

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You can’t see it but the role of air in cycling is not to be underrated, perhaps most obvious it can either help or hinder progress in the form of wind.  Between 70% and 90% of total resistance is caused by aerodynamic drag on a flat road, add to that a headwind and it becomes hard work, with a tailwind it’s a pleasure – like having a motor if it’s strong enough!  Depending on wind direction, the noise of air movement whilst cycling can be loud when battling into a wind or when from behind maybe completely lost – resulting in the pleasurable feeling of almost floating along in a quiet bubble.

At its most extreme, in the case of track racing inside a velodrome, the ambient temperature of the air and air pressure can make the difference between winning or losing and world records due to its affect on resistance.  In such an environment, where results may come down to thousands of a second, every effort is made to make the machine and rider as aerodynamically efficient in the air as possible through equipment design and riding technique.  In road racing cross-winds can rip a peloton apart, which will then break into echelon groups in order combat the obstacle of air.  Depending on severity the outcome of a race can often be determined by such winds.

Air temperature and wind strength can also determine riding comfort.  When cold suitable windproof clothing is important and makes a big difference.  When hot or at least warm, the air helps keep muscles warm and supple.  At all times, especially when warm, the movement of air plays a useful role wicking away the rider’s sweat; whilst making for greater rider comfort, the affect can cause increased dehydration.

On a modern bike air plays one final critical role, in the form of inflatable tyres, without which cycling would be a much less comfortable experience that becomes abruptly evident in the event of a puncture.  When cycling we are literally riding on air.

To be continued ……………………………….

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